Lobster is the Engine of the Southern Maine Economy

How important is the lobster fishery to the Maine coast? What will be the economic impact of a reduction in the harvest due to regulations or a changing Gulf of Maine? We continue our three-part series with a look at southern Maine.

Dozens of small harbors, such as Cape Porpoise, support a fleet of large and small lobster vessels. Photo by E. Young.

Seen from above, the coast of southern Maine is a delicate embroidery of sand, headlands, and small coves. Rivers such as the Saco, Kennebunk, Batson, and York flow to the southwest, bringing their loads of sand and dissolved nutrients into the coastal waters. Flanking old Route 1 along the shore are hundreds of motels, bed and breakfasts, T-shirt shops, and restaurants that cater to Maine’s summer visitors. Underlying the beauty and the commerce, however, is the industry that keeps the southern Maine economy humming, the lobster fishery.

Southern Maine has a lot of lobster, both in the water and on the land. More than 25 companies in the business of buying, storing, processing, and shipping lobster are located between Portland and Kittery. They range from the international, such as Inland Seafood and Maine Coast, to smaller, family-owned companies, such as Sea Salt and Port Lobster Company. That diversity, combined with a de-centralized lobster fleet, makes lobstering a powerful economic driver for the region.

Unlike Downeast Maine, where the fishing port of Stonington dominates, lobster fishing in southern Maine takes place in dozens of smaller harbors. “There’s a lot of lobster coming in from a lot of little places,” said Allen Daggett. “They are in Perkins Cove, Cape Porpoise, from Cape Ellis down to York. It’s spread out. You have 20, 30 boats here and another 20, 30 boats there.” Daggett, 71, knows the history of the area well; he began lobstering when he was 12. In his early 20s, he came ashore and began selling lobsters, then ventured into other businesses related to the fishery. Currently he owns and operates Cape Porpoise Lobster, Port Lobster Company, Cape Pier Chowder House, and Cape Porpoise Bait Company.

While lobstermen move their profits into the local economy directly through purchases and indirectly through property and other taxes, businesses such as Daggett’s also pump large sums of money into the region. “We’ve got about 40 people who work for us now. Maybe $10 to $12 million in gross sales from the four businesses,” Daggett said. “I keep my crew on at Cape Porpoise through the winter even though I don’t make any money then.”

Processing

Long ago, southern Maine lobsters were packed into cedar barrels and shipped by train down to diners in Boston and New York City. Now millions of pounds of lobsters are moved daily by refrigerated trucks to Boston and New York for transport around the world. In recent years, the city of Saco has become the focus of the expanding lobster processing sector.

Back in 2012, Luke’s Lobster opened Luke’s Lobster Seafood Company its processing plant in Saco. The company took over a 50,000-square-foot production site formerly occupied by Tom’s of Maine and, before that, juice maker Fresh Samantha. The facility initially provided the lobster meat for the company’s growing number of lobster restaurants in the United States and Asia. It also provided lobster to retailers such as Whole Foods. Eventually the company began offering value added lobster items, opening an online retail arm in 2020. Today, Saco is the base for all Luke’s Lobster’s processing and manufacturing activities, processing more than seven million pounds annually prior to the pandemic.

Ready Seafood, now part of Canadian Premium Brands Holding Corporation, unveiled its $15-million 52,000-square-foot facility in Saco in 2019. The processing plant employs 250 predominately full-time employees and produces a range of lobster products, from raw meat and tails to value-added menu items, such as mini lobster grilled cheese sandwich appetizers. Ready Seafood operates lobster holding facilities in York, Portland, as well as Sorrento. According to its website, the company buys and sells more than 15 million pounds of live and processed lobster annually.

Sea Salt, a wholesale and retail lobster company, first leased a building in Saco’s industrial park in 2010, then purchased land along Route 1 and built an entirely new plant in 2014, complete with a restaurant and retail fish market. Its location near the Maine Turnpike allows Sea Salt’s fleet of four trucks to send at least two lobster shipments each day down to Boston.

Tourism

Young and old, visitors to Maine love lobsters. Photo courtesy of the Yarmouth Clam Festival.

Unlike most of the Maine coast, southern Maine features extensive sand beaches which have been a tourist magnet for more than a century. Each summer, visitors from out-of-state flock to the southern shore where they spend their dollars on food, accommodations, and other purchases. For many, the appeal of a vacation in Maine begins with lobster.

Whether it’s the crowds at Barnacle Billy’s in Ogunquit or the Sunday customers at DiMillo’s in Portland, diners want to eat lobster, no matter the month of the year. Tourists from near and far have their favorite places for an Maine lobster feast, be it Nunan’s Lobster Hut, Chauncy Creek Lobster, the Clam Shack, Bayley’s Lobster Pound, or many others. “The lobster fishery is a prime part of the restaurant industry in the state,” said Matt Lewis, executive director of HospitalityMaine. “The success of the industry from a tourist and visitor point of view is important.”

“People come to Maine to eat a lobster, see a lobsterman, look at boats. It’s a huge part of Maine’s economy,” said Arundel lobsterman Cody Nunan. “Everyone who’s a lobsterman around here goes at it full-time. I’m proud to be a lobsterman. It’s not a job, it’s a life. Everything that happens around here is based on it. As a kid growing up, I didn’t realize it but it’s an amazing living.”

“We recognize the importance of lobstering to the southern Maine economy, as it provides a valuable, longstanding livelihood for many individuals and their families in our communities, including those who lobster and those who provide supplies and services to the industry, including retailers, wholesalers and processors,” said Kennebunk Savings Bank CEO Bradford Paige in an email. “We do count and highly value a number of local individuals and businesses in our customer base who are involved in the industry and rely on a thriving and healthy fishery.”

Justin Laverriere, vice president commercial loan officer at Maine Community Bank [a collaboration of Biddeford Savings and Mechanics Savings Banks], reflected on the link between the coastal communities and the lobster fishery’s wellbeing.

“Lobstermen are very good customers. They work hard, pay their bills, and can have great success in the fishery. The lobstermen I see in southern Maine have been doing it for a long time, it’s what their families have done, it’s a tradition,” he said. “They are under regulatory pressure, I see that. I see more lobstermen coming in to get loans to buy additional permits. I’ve also seen lobstermen get loans to go into the bait business, either for themselves or to sell to distributors. They are creative in finding ways to make money and remain successful.”

As spring comes, the shuttered restaurants and ice cream shops along Goose Rocks Beach, Cape Porpoise, and Perkins Cove will come to life again, open their doors and welcome yet another wave of people eager to see Maine’s lobstering traditions at work. Traps will be loaded aft on lobster boats, brightly colored buoys ready on deck. Once more hundreds of pounds of lobster will come up from the seafloor, over the gunnel and onto dozens of small wharves, adding economic fuel once more to southern Maine’s thriving local communities.

Brendan and John Ready open the company’s new processing facility in Saco. Photo courtesy of Ready Seafood.
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